In 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my survey “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” (now hosted here). Since then Tor.com has published 23 in-depth essays I wrote about some of the 42 works mentioned, and another essay by LaShawn Wanak on my collection Filter House. This month’s column is about The Summer Prince, a Young Adult (YA) science fiction novel by Alaya Dawn Johnson.
Palmares Tres, the setting for most of The Summer Prince, is a sort of pyramidal arcology, an ostensibly Utopian Brazilian city built by survivors of a combined global medical, military, and climatic apocalypse. Hundreds of years back in its past (which is our future), the city’s founders instituted a ritual kingship supporting women’s rule. Remarkably, the city and its political system have sustained themselves. And though Palmares is stratified and divided, from the Queen’s Residence at its peak to the slums surrounding the algae vats at its base, its citizens are fiercely loyal to its spirit. They always manage to come together to choose their sacrificial king.
As the book’s action begins Palmares votes overwhelmingly for Enki, protagonist June Costa’s favorite candidate. Enki is unusually dark for a Palmarino, an immigrant’s child who captivates the city’s under-30 “wakas” with his revolutionary passion and subversive art. Embracing nanotechnological enhancements banned by the Aunties—the long-lived old women who run Palmares Tres—this newly elected Summer King transforms himself into a symbol of inescapable change which the Aunties, bound by their tradition of tolerance for royal whims, must accept.
One of Enki’s nanotech self-modifications allows—or maybe forces—him to love everyone. Including June. But on the evening these two meet, during his first public appearance as king, Enki dances a practically flaming mating dance with June’s best friend, Gil. Crushed-out June’s heartbreak is broadcast live throughout the whole city, making her an object of pity. How does she find the strength to go on? By dedicating herself to the common ground she and Enki share: art. Through sculpture and dance and staged performances June, Enki, and to some extent Gil model a new Palmares, one where Enki’s death is no longer necessary.
June and Enki’s dedication to this emerging city’s reality leads them beyond its confines, to the ruined landscapes his mother fled, the lost homeland of the poor and famished and ill and exhausted and all those whose physical selves have served as substrate for Palmares’s glories. The truants’ bodies seek their salvation there, in the realm of the senses. They’re aided in their escape by the ambassador from Tokyo-10 who is also enamored of Enki, and who, trapped in flesh that rejects the technology enabling his colleagues to live entirely digital lives, worships the physicality of the erotic feelings the Summer King arouses in him.
Loss, beauty, delight, longing—these sensations are the emotional core of the Brazilian concept of saudade. Like a landscape or a line of poetry one can never forget, saudade infiltrates and haunts The Summer Prince. Taking place hundreds of years in the future, this story is a prime example of what the English punk rock band Buzzcocks meant when they sang of “nostalgia for an age yet to come.”
One missing piece from this novel’s moving picture is evoked by the city’s name: Palmares Tres refers to the 17th-century city of Palmares, a community of refuge for thousands of poor and formerly enslaved people in what is now the Brazilian state of Alagoas. Fountains, courtyards, churches, homes—all were destroyed in a series of attacks by soldiers sent by the powerful sugar growers. In depicting Palmares Tres, Johnson reproduces not the original’s buildings but its social architecture. She shows how a community of indigenous and African-descended people draws on its members to support the realization of their dreams.
Several times Johnson mentions “classical” (by which she means 20th-century Brazilian) music, and in particular the Luiz Bonfá composition “Manhã de Carnaval.” The pleasurable pain of hearing this song is one that grows with life’s expanding associations—you feel saudade more deeply as your experience of loss mounts higher and higher. Over the course of the novel, June forms associations between Enki and her surroundings, Enki and their work, Enki and the world. With a lifespan of centuries ahead of her, she’ll have plenty of time to relish their sad absence. And maybe to empathize with others facing similar feelings. And maybe discover what lies beyond them.
YET TO COME
Even the poorest inhabitants of Palmares Tres possess something few of us living today have: the guarantee of a racially inclusive future. Individually, wakas such as June and Gil receive medical treatments enabling their easy transition to grande status and ages of 250 or more years. They’re sure of populating the coming decades with their non-Euro cultural and biological heritage. Even if they themselves don’t make it due to some terrible accident, they will leave legacies to others in their community. Their art will live on. As will their love. That’s what Johnson’s vision promises us.
I long for Palmares Tres. I long for this future, a site of hope and frustration, joy and tumult and striving and change. It’s what we deserve. I feel so very grateful to Johnson for creating it. So will you when you read The Summer Prince.
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.